Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He is a consultant to the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Donald Trump's campaign has announced a major staff shake-up with less than three months to Election Day
Paul Begala: A general election requires a different mindset, and a different skill set, than a primary
For the second time in two months, Donald Trump has installed new leadership in his campaign. But here’s a little secret: it ain’t the staff. Never is.
It’s Trump, stupid.
Corey Lewandowski, who was bounced after leading Trump to a remarkable string of primary victories, was not the problem. Neither is Paul Manafort, the Washington lobbyist who now seems to have been demoted, despite the campaign’s protestations to the contrary. And the new crew isn’t the solution, either.
No staffer told Donald Trump to call Mexican immigrants rapists. It wasn’t the campaign manager who said John McCain was not a war hero because he was a POW. No consultant came up with the brilliant strategy of mocking a man’s disability. No adviser wrote the line that was widely seen as a threat to Hillary Clinton’s life. Nor was any strategist behind attacking a Gold Star family.
I doubt anyone whispered in Trump’s ear that it would be a good idea to invite a hostile foreign power – Russia, for goodness sake – to commit cyberwarfare against Americans. It was not a pollster who told him to declare he knows more about ISIS than the generals. No media strategist forced Trump to spend 30 years demeaning women, to have his casino company declare bankruptcy, to outsource the making of his Trump-branded goods to foreign countries, to apparently pay little or no federal income taxes and then refuse to release returns.
As always in a campaign, the problem is never the monkey; it’s the organ grinder.
Trump seems genuinely mystified that the tactics that won him impressive victories over able, experienced opponents in the fight for the GOP nomination are failing him in the general election. So desperate is he that he is already trying to discredit Hillary Clinton’s victory-to-be, claiming if he loses Pennsylvania (where he trails by double digits) it must be because of fraud.
But it’s not fraud and it’s not staff. It is that, as with many of us, Donald J. Trump’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. The shoot-from-the-lip, crypto-racist, misogynistic, xenophobic insult comedy act was unbeatable when the audience was dominated by high-school educated, older white men.
The GOP base was primed to embrace a candidate like Trump. But the general electorate is repulsed. Trump does not seem to understand that, impressive as the 13 million-plus GOP primary votes he got is, he will need 65 to 70 million votes to win the White House. And as my insightful CNN colleague Ron Brownstein has noted, the path from 13 million to 70 million is lined with college-educated voters, Millennials, people of color, unmarried women, secular voters – each of whom he has antagonized and alienated.
A general election requires a different mindset, and a different skillset, than a primary. It’s like the decathlon: the first event – the GOP primary – is the javelin. Trump picked up that spear and threw it farther than anyone had ever seen. He obliterated the best efforts of an entire generation of GOP stars. But the second event – the general election – is the pole vault. It requires lift and loft; you gotta soar. Yet Trump just grabs the pole and throws it, too. (And when that doesn’t work, he starts running around the Olympic Stadium with the pole, trying to hit the Mexican judge).
All of this should be heartening to me, as a Clinton Democrat. But I am an American first, and as an American I am nauseated. If the analysts are correct, Trump’s new team is even more committed to the politics of personal destruction. I expect Trump, who started in the gutter, to finish in the sewer. That is, perhaps, where he belongs.
But millions of Americans who want an honest debate about their future deserve more; they deserve better. And on November 8 I hope they will sink the Trumptanic once and for all.